Home  »  Anna Karenin  »  Chapter V

Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Anna Karenin.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Part I

Chapter V

STEPAN ARKADYEVITCH had learned easily at school, thanks to his excellent abilities, but he had been idle and mischievous, and therefore was one of the lowest in his class. But in spite of his habitually dissipated mode of life, his inferior grade in the service, and his comparative youth, he occupied the honourable and lucrative position of president of one of the government boards at Moscow. This post he had received through his sister Anna’s husband, Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin, who held one of the most important positions in the ministry to whose department the Moscow office belonged. But if Karenin had not got his brother-in-law this berth, then through a hundred other personages—brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, and aunts—Stiva Oblonsky would have received this post, or some other similar one, together with the salary of six thousand absolutely needful for him, as his affairs, in spite of his wife’s considerable property, were in an embarrassed condition.

Half Moscow and Petersburg were friends and relations of Stepan Arkadyevitch. He was born in the midst of those who had been and are the powerful ones of this world. One- third of the men in the government, the older men, had been friends of his father’s, and had known him in petticoats; another third were his intimate chums, and the remainder were friendly acquaintances. Consequently the distributors of earthly blessings in the shape of places, rents, shares, and such, were all his friends, and could not overlook one of their own set; and Oblonsky had no need to make any special exertion to get a lucrative post. He had only not to refuse things, not to show jealousy, not to be quarrelsome or take offence, all of which from his characteristic good nature he never did. It would have struck him as absurd if he had been told that he would not get a position with the salary he required, especially as he expected nothing out of the way; he only wanted what the men of his own age and standing did get, and he was no worse qualified for performing duties of the kind than any other man.

Stepan Arkadyevitch was not merely liked by all who knew him for his good-humour, his bright disposition, and his unquestionable honesty. In him, in his handsome, radiant figure, his sparkling eyes, black hair and eyebrows, and the white and red of his face, there was something which produced a physical effect of kindliness and good-humour on the people who met him. ‘Aha! Stiva! Oblonsky! Here he is!’ was almost always said with a smile of delight on meeting him. Even though it happened at times that after a conversation with him it seemed that nothing particularly delightful had happened, the next day, and the next, every one was just as delighted at meeting him again.

After filling for three years the post of president of one of the government boards at Moscow, Stepan Arkadyevitch had won the respect, as well as the liking, of his fellow- officials, subordinates, and superiors, and all who had had business with him. The principal qualities in Stepan Arkadyevitch which had gained him this universal respect in the service consisted, in the first place, of his extreme indulgence for others, founded on a consciousness of his own shortcomings; secondly, of his perfect liberalism—not the liberalism he read of in the papers, but the liberalism that was in his blood, in virtue of which he treated all men perfectly equally and exactly the same, whatever their fortune or calling might be; and thirdly—the most important point—his complete indifference to the business in which he was engaged, in consequence of which he was never carried away, and never made mistakes.

On reaching the offices of the board, Stepan Arkadyevitch, escorted by a deferential porter with a portfolio, went into his little private room, put on his uniform, and went into the board-room. The clerks and copyists all rose, greeting him with good-humoured deference. Stepan Arkadyevitch moved quickly, as ever, to his place, shook hands with his colleagues, and sat down. He made a joke or two, and talked just as much as was consistent with due decorum, and began work. No one knew better than Stepan Arkadyevitch how to hit on the exact line between freedom, simplicity, and official stiffness necessary for the agreeable conduct of business. A secretary, with the good-humoured deference common to every one in Stepan Arkadyevitch’s office, came up with papers, and began to speak in the familiar and easy tone which had been introduced by Stepan Arkadyevitch.

‘We have succeeded in getting the information from the government department of Penza. Here, would you care?…’

‘You’ve got them at last?’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch, laying his finger on the paper. ‘Now, gentlemen.…’

And the sitting of the board began.

‘If they knew,’ he thought, bending his head with a significant air as he listened to the report, ‘what a guilty little boy their president was half an hour ago.’ And his eyes were laughing during the reading of the report. Till two o’clock the sitting went on without a break, and at two o’clock there would be an interval and luncheon.

It was not yet two, when the large glass doors of the board-room suddenly opened and some one came in.

All the officials sitting on the further side under the portrait of the Tsar and the eagle, delighted at any distraction, looked round at the door; but the doorkeeper standing at the door at once drove out the intruder, and closed the glass door after him.

When the case had been read through, Stepan Arkadyevitch got up and stretched, and by way of tribute to the liberalism of the times took out a cigarette in the board- room and went into his private room. Two of the members of the board, the old veteran in the service, Nikitin, and the kammer-yunker Grinévitch, went in with him.

‘We shall have time to finish after lunch,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch.

‘To be sure we shall!’ said Nikitin.

‘A pretty sharp fellow this Fomin must be,’ said Grinevitch of one of the persons taking part in the case they were examining.

Stepan Arkadyevitch frowned at Grinevitch’s words, giving him thereby to understand that it was improper to pass judgment prematurely, and made him no reply.

‘Who was that came in?’ he asked the doorkeeper.

‘Some one, your excellency, crept in without permission directly my back was turned. He was asking for you. I told him: when the members come out, then.…’

‘Where is he?’

‘May be he’s gone into the passage, but here he comes any way. That is he,’ said the doorkeeper, pointing to a strongly built, broad-shouldered man with a curly beard, who, without taking off his sheepskin cap, was running lightly and rapidly up the worn steps of the stone staircase. One of the members going down—a lean official with a portfolio—stood out of his way and looked disapprovingly at the legs of the stranger, then glanced inquiringly at Oblonsky.

Stepan Arkadyevitch was standing at the top of the stairs. His good-naturedly beaming face above the embroidered collar of his uniform beamed more than ever when he recognised the man coming up.

‘Why, it’s actually you, Levin, at last!’ he said with a friendly mocking smile, scanning Levin as he approached. ‘How is it you have deigned to look me up in this den?’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch, and not content with shaking hands, he kissed his friend. ‘Have you been here long?’

‘I have just come, and very much wanted to see you,’ said Levin, looking shyly and at the same time angrily and uneasily around.

‘Well, let’s go into my room,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch, who knew his friend’s sensitive and irritable shyness, and, taking his arm, he drew him along, as though guiding him through dangers.

Stepan Arkadyevitch was on familiar terms with almost all his acquaintances, and called almost all of them by their Christian names: old men of sixty, boys of twenty, actors, ministers, merchants, and adjutant-generals, so that many of his intimate chums were to be found at the extreme ends of the social ladder, and would have been very much surprised to learn that they had, through the medium of Oblonsky, something in common. He was the familiar friend of every one with whom he took a glass of champagne, and he took a glass of champagne with every one, and when in consequence he met any of his disreputable chums, as he used in joke to call many of his friends, in the presence of his subordinates, he well knew how, with his characteristic tact, to diminish the disagreeable impression made on them. Levin was not a disreputable chum, but Oblonsky, with his ready tact, felt that Levin fancied he might not care to show his intimacy with him before his subordinates, and so he made haste to take him off into his room.

Levin was almost of the same age as Oblonsky; their intimacy did not rest merely on champagne. Levin had been the friend and companion of his early youth. They were fond of one another in spite of the difference of their characters and tastes, as friends are fond of one another who have been together in early youth. But in spite of this, each of them—as is often the way with men who have selected careers of different kinds—though in discussion he would even justify the other’s career, in his heart despised it. It seemed to each of them that the life he led himself was the only real life, and the life led by his friend was a mere phantasm. Oblonsky could not restrain a slight mocking smile at the sight of Levin. How often he had seen him come up to Moscow from the country where he was doing something, but what precisely Stepan Arkadyevitch could never quite make out, and indeed he took no interest in the matter.

Levin arrived in Moscow always excited and in a hurry, rather ill at ease and irritated by his own want of ease, and for the most part with a perfectly new, unexpected view of things. Stepan Arkadyevitch laughed at this, and liked it. In the same way Levin in his heart despised the town mode of life of his friend, and his official duties, which he laughed at, and regarded as trifling. But the difference was that Oblonsky, as he was doing the same as every one did, laughed complacently and good-humouredly, while Levin laughed without complacency and sometimes angrily.

‘We have long been expecting you,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch, going into his room and letting Levin’s hand go as though to show that here all danger was over. ‘I am very, very glad to see you,’ he went on. ‘Well, how are you? Eh? When did you come?’

Levin was silent, looking at the unknown faces of Oblonsky’s two companions, and especially at the hand of the elegant Grinevitch, which had such long white fingers, such long yellow filbert-shaped nails, and such huge shining studs on the shirt-cuff, that apparently they absorbed all his attention and allowed him no freedom of thought. Oblonsky noticed this at once, and smiled.

‘Ah, to be sure, let me introduce you,’ he said. ‘My colleagues: Philip Ivanitch Nikitin, Mihail Stanislavitch Grinevitch’—and turning to Levin—‘a district councillor, a modern district council man, a gymnast who lifts thirteen stone with one hand, a cattle-breeder and sportsman, and my friend, Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin, the brother of Sergey Ivanovitch Koznishev.’

‘Delighted,’ said the veteran.

‘I have the honour of knowing your brother, Sergey Ivanovitch,’ said Grinevitch, holding out his slender hand with its long nails.

Levin frowned, shook hands coldly, and at once turned to Oblonsky. Though he had a great respect for his half- brother, an author well known to all Russia, he could not endure it when people treated him not as Konstantin Levin, but as the brother of the celebrated Koznishev.

‘No, I am no longer a district councillor. I have quarrelled with them all, and don’t go to the meetings any more,’ he said, turning to Oblonsky.

‘You’ve been quick about it!’ said Oblonsky with a smile. ‘But how? why?’

‘It’s a long story. I will tell you some time,’ said Levin, but he began telling him at once. ‘Well, to put it shortly, I was convinced that nothing was really done by the district councils, or ever could be,’ he began, as though some one had just insulted him. ‘On one side it’s a plaything; they play at being a parliament, and I’m neither young enough nor old enough to find amusement in playthings; and on the other side’ (he stammered) ‘it’s a means for the coterie of the district to make money. Formerly they had wardships, courts of justice, now they have the district council—not in the form of bribes, but in the form of unearned salary,’ he said, as hotly as though some one of those present had opposed his opinion.

‘Aha! You’re in a new phase again, I see—a conservative,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch. ‘However, we can go into that later.’

‘Yes, later. But I wanted to see you,’ said Levin, looking with hatred at Grinevitch’s hand.

Stepan Arkadyevitch gave a scarcely perceptible smile.

‘How was it you used to say you would never wear European dress again?’ he said, scanning his new suit, obviously cut by a French tailor. ‘Ah! I see: a new phase.’

Levin suddenly blushed, not as grown men blush, slightly, without being themselves aware of it, but as boys blush, feeling that they are ridiculous through their shyness, and consequently ashamed of it and blushing still more, almost to the point of tears.

And it was so strange to see this sensible, manly face in such a childish plight, that Oblonsky left off looking at him.

‘Oh, where shall we meet? You know I want very much to talk to you,’ said Levin.

Oblonsky seemed to ponder.

‘I’ll tell you what: let’s go to Gurin’s to lunch, and there we can talk. I am free till three.’

‘No,’ answered Levin, after an instant’s thought, ‘I have got to go on somewhere else.’

‘All right, then, let’s dine together.’

‘Dine together? But I have nothing very particular, only a few words to say, and a question I want to ask you, and we can have a talk afterwards.’

‘Well, say the few words, then, at once, and we’ll gossip after dinner.’

‘Well, it’s this,’ said Levin; ‘but it’s of no importance, though.’

His face all at once took an expression of anger from the effort he was making to surmount his shyness.

‘What are the Shtcherbatskys doing? Everything as it used to be?’ he said.

Stepan Arkadyevitch, who had long known that Levin was in love with his sister-in-law, Kitty, gave a hardly perceptible smile, and his eyes sparkled merrily.

‘You said a few words, but I can’t answer in a few words. because … Excuse me a minute.…’

A secretary came in, with respectful familiarity and the modest consciousness, characteristic of every secretary, of superiority to his chief in the knowledge of their business; he went up to Oblonsky with some papers, and began, under pretence of asking a question, to explain some objection. Stepan Arkadyevitch, without hearing him out, laid his hand genially on the secretary’s sleeve.

‘No, you do as I told you,’ he said, softening his words with a smile, and with a brief explanation of his view of the matter he turned away from the papers, and said: ‘So do it in that way, if you please, Zahar Nikititch.’

The secretary retired in confusion. During the consultation with the secretary Levin had completely recovered from his embarrassment. He was standing with his elbows on the back of a chair, and on his face was a look of ironical attention.

‘I don’t understand it, I don’t understand it,’ he said.

‘What don’t you understand?’ said Oblonsky, smiling as brightly as ever, and picking up a cigarette. He expected some queer outburst from Levin.

‘I don’t understand what you are doing,’ said Levin, shrugging his shoulders. ‘How can you do it seriously?’

‘Why not?’

‘Why, because there’s nothing in it.’

‘You think so, but we’re overwhelmed with work.’

‘On paper. But, there, you’ve a gift for it,’ added Levin.

‘That’s to say, you think there’s a lack of something in me?’

‘Perhaps so,’ said Levin. ‘But all the same I admire your grandeur, and am proud that I’ve a friend such a great person. You’ve not answered my question, though,’ he went on, with a desperate effort looking Oblonsky straight in the face.

‘Oh, that’s all very well. You wait a bit, and you’ll come to this yourself. It’s very nice for you to have over six thousand acres in the Karazinsky district, and such muscles, and the freshness of a girl of twelve; still you’ll be one of us one day. Yes, as to your question, there is no change, but it’s a pity you’ve been away so long.’

‘Oh, why so?’ Levin queried, panic-stricken.

‘Oh, nothing,’ responded Oblonsky. ‘We’ll talk it over. But what’s brought you up to town?’

‘Oh, we’ll talk about that, too, later on,’ said Levin, reddening again up to his ears.

‘All right. I see,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch. ‘I should ask you to come to us, you know, but my wife’s not quite the thing. But I tell you what: if you want to see them, they’re sure now to be at the Zoological Gardens from four to five. Kitty skates. You drive along there, and I’ll come and fetch you, and we’ll go and dine somewhere together.’

‘Capital. So good-bye till then.’

‘Now mind, you’ll forget, I know you, or rush off home to the country!’ Stepan Arkadyevitch called out, laughing.

‘No, truly!’

And Levin went out of the room, only when he was in the doorway remembering that he had forgotten to take leave of Oblonsky’s colleagues.

‘That gentleman must be a man of great energy,’ said Grinevitch, when Levin had gone away.

‘Yes, my dear boy,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch, nodding his head, ‘he’s a lucky fellow! Over six thousand acres in the Karazinsky district; everything before him; and what youth and vigour! Not like some of us.’

‘You have a great deal to complain of, haven’t you, Stepan Arkadyevitch?’

‘Ah, yes; I’m in a poor way, a bad way,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch with a heavy sigh.